A pre-code directed by W. S. Van Dyke that’s set in Cuba with “The Peanut Vendor” sung throughout – how could I resist?
Terry Burke (played by famous baritone, Lawrence Tibbett) is a well-to-do young man who joins the marines on a whim and ends up in Cuba with his buddies – Romance (played by Ernest Torrence) and O. O. Jones (Jimmy Durante). Burke is engaged to Crystal (Karen Morley), a socialite who turns out to be made of good moral stock and impressive loyalty, but it is Nenita, a Havana peanut vendor who steals Terry’s heart. Nenita is played by Lupe Velez, who lights up the screen in this noisy, but entertaining romp.
It’s such fun watching these players at play that the uninspired story hardly matters. Terry Burke and Nenita have a love affair in Havana before War breaks out forcing Terry and his buddies to leave Cuba. The couple “lives together” in unmarried, pre-code style singing at every opportunity – living life and enjoying nights of romance under the tropic moon…
Once the Marine leaves the island ten years go by in flash, however, and the couple loses touch. Terry is hurt during the war and we soon see he returns to life as usual in U.S. upper crust circles with the understanding Crystal by his side. But Terry has never forgotten Nenita and his Cuban adventure. While in a New York City nightclub one night he hears a singer performing “El Manicero” (Spanish for “The Peanut Vendor”), which inspires him to return to Cuba to search for his lost love. He does so only to learn Nenita has died finding instead her daughter who she named Terry. Ever the stand-up guy Terry does right by them all in the end concluding a so-so story, but entertaining movie.
It’s a pleasure to listen to Lawrence Tibbett sing throughout THE CUBAN LOVE SONG, with favorites being the aforementioned “The Peanut Vendor,” which he learns in the movie from Velez as Nenita who explains the song’s origins to him. Another favorite is the film’s title song, “Cuban Love Song,” which is a beautiful, romantic melody. It’s also a pleasure to bask in Velez’ energy, which is substantial. The film’s pre-code-y-ness, as I call it is also a treat – the relaxed sexual mores and attitudes that make these films standouts compared to later, more conservative fare.
THE CUBAN LOVE SONG doesn’t fare well if compared to the higher ranked and/or more popular pre-code films starring perennial favorites Norma Shearer or Barbara Stanwyck to name just two, but I still recommend you take a look at it if the chance arises. Aside from the music some of the dialogue is funny and director W. S. Van Dyke always manages entertaining scenes.
While familiar with Lawrence Tibbett’s recordings and radio performances, I believe this is the first film I’ve ever seen of his and I really enjoyed his acting. Tibbett’s chemistry with and contrast to Velez both on-screen and in relation to the cultural differences depicted in the story work well. In my quest to become more familiar with pre-code films this one serves educational on several fronts so I’m happy I chose it as the first of two entries I’m submitting to the Pre-Code Blogathon hosted by Pre-Code.Com and Shadows and Satin. And I must extend a huge thanks to Karen of Shadows and Satin for ensuring I get a copy of THE CUBAN LOVE SONG to view for this post. Be sure to visit the host sites!
Without getting into specifics about the tragedy that ended Lupe Velez’ life, I’d like to at least mention the tragedy that was her career. Relegated to film roles in which she played only stereotypical Spanish-speaking women with super heavy accents and oft silly dialogue, it’s still impressive to consider how busy a career Velez had in the early 1930s. The same year Lupe did THE CUBAN LOVE SONG, she also made the disturbing (and insulting) KONGO directed by William J. Cowen and co-starring Walter Huston and Lloyd Corrigan’s THE BROKEN WING, which I’ve yet to see. She also appeared in concurrent Spanish-language versions of movies most of which were produced by Universal Studios. It takes a simple film such as THE CUBAN LOVE SONG to remind us of what a waste all of that was. While we should be thankful we have her on film to enjoy at all, one can’t help but wonder what would have been if she’d been offered more substantial work.
As a native of Cuba I’d be remiss not to mention how THE CUBAN LOVE SONG, as did many of the films produced at the time, makes no attempt at authenticity or consistency regarding the culture depicted in the movie. I’d discussed this in some detail in a post I did a while back, Antonio Moreno and The Story of Spanish-language Hollywood. In a nutshell Hollywood alienated the exact audience it tried to attract with its Spanish-version films by not bothering with authenticity. THE CUBAN LOVE SONG suffers from the same malady in that the Cubans depicted in the movie have Mexican accents and use typical Mexican idioms throughout. While the fact doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the movie, it’s worth a mention because it can be distracting.
Finally, I thought it would be fun to share another bit of entertainment history specific to “The Peanut Vendor” song since it plays such a central role in THE CUBAN LOVE SONG…
Originally titled, “El Manicero,” “The Peanut Vendor” by Moïse Simons is one of the most influential Cuban songs ever written. Styled as if it were a street vendor’s cry the song has been recorded over 150 times and by some of the greatest musicians and bands the world over for decades. It has also been featured in various ways in movies through the years. One of my favorites, not surprisingly, is George Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN (1954) where “The Peanut Vendor” is incorporated into Judy’s “Born in a Trunk” medley/sequence. Following is “El Manicero” via a few links to popular recorded versions and movie clips:
- The first version of “El Manicero” that became a certified hit was recorded by Cuban singer/actress, Rita Montaner in 1928. Montaner later performed the song in the 1938 movie, IT HAPPENED IN HAVANA, originally titled EL ROMANCE DEL PALMAR. Here is the Montaner performance of “El Manicero” from that movie.
- The Havana Casino Orchestra recorded “El Manicero” in 1930. Here it is. It was this Orchestra’s performance of “El Manicero” at New York’s Palace Theater that resulted in “The Peanut Vendor” becoming a hit across the U.S.
- That same year “The Peanut Vendor” was recorded by Louis Armstrong
- Here’s the clip of Lupe Velez teaching Lawrence Tibbett “The Peanut Vendor” from THE CUBAN LOVE SONG (1931).
- A Fleischer Studios cartoon from the animated series, “Screen Songs,” THE PEANUT VENDOR from 1933.
- At about 1:54 in this clip Jean Arthur asks, “Does anyone know ‘The Peanut Vendor’?” – “Si, como no?” And the crowd around the piano starts the call led by Cary Grant in this scene from ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939).
- I’m not sure of the year of this recording, but I certainly can’t leave out a Desi Arnaz’s version of “The Peanut Vendor.” Here it is performed by the Desi Arnaz Orchestra.
- Superstar, Cantinflas dances to “El Manicero.”
- During a live performance in 1946, Betty Hutton sings a version of “The Peanut Vendor.”
- In LUXURY LINER (1948) Xavier Cugat accompanies Jane Powell for this version of “El Manicero.”. By the way, Cugat recorded several versions of the song through the years.
- And here’s Dean Martin’s version of “The Peanut Vendor.”
There are many, many more clips and recordings to share, including Groucho whistling “The Peanut Vendor” in DUCK SOUP (1933), but I’ll stop with these examples. As it is you may never have peanuts again.
Due to its “cultural importance,” “The Peanut Vendor” was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board, which noted:
- “It is the first American recording of an authentic Latin dance style. This recording launched a decade of ‘rumbamania’, introducing U.S. listeners to Cuban percussion instruments and Cuban rhythms.”
- “The Peanut Vendor” was inducted into the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.